PITTSBURGH — Maurkice Pouncey is eager to talk about something other than his questionable choices in headwear.
Like his job, mostly.
The Pittsburgh Steelers center began training camp by apologizing again on Friday for being pictured wearing a baseball cap earlier this month supporting former college teammate Aaron Hernandez. Pouncey and twin brother Mike — who played with Hernandez at Florida — wore hats that read “Free Hernandez” during their birthday party in Miami. Hernandez is currently in jail in Massachusetts facing a murder charge in the death of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. He has pleaded not guilty.
No matter the context of the picture, Pouncey understands it was a poor choice.
“I know I took a lot of heat for it and I probably should have,” Pouncey said.
The incident was enough for Pouncey to have a brief chat with coach Mike Tomlin about the situation. While Tomlin declined to get into details about the discussion, Pouncey left little doubt that he will be focused on becoming the unquestioned leader on one of the NFL’s youngest offensive lines and not any push to clear Hernandez’s name.
“I understand it was a serious situation,” he said. “I apologize if I offended anybody. You know what? I’m here to play football.”
So are the four players he hopes to line up alongside of this season. The Steelers slumped to 8-8 last year thanks in part to a steady stream of injuries to the line and in the backfield. Pittsburgh finished in the bottom 10 in the league in rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns last season while missing the playoffs for the second time since Tomlin took over in 2007.
“Not making the playoffs is unacceptable here, everybody knows that,” Pouncey said.
It’s one of the main reasons most of the line’s young guns — Pouncey, tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams and guard David DeCastro — spent a lengthy portion of the offseason working out together.
The quartet, none of whom are older than 25, understand the ability for the Steelers to bounce back relies largely on their ability to stay on the field.
Adams, the second-round pick in the 2012 draft saw his career jeopardized by a late-night attack outside a Pittsburgh restaurant on June 1. He was stabbed in the forearm and abdomen during the attempted robbery and spent six weeks recovering.
Yet Adams was on the field at Saint Vincent College on Friday running alongside his teammates during a conditioning test. He passed with ease and is expected to begin camp as the starting right tackle.
It’s what the Steelers had in mind when they cut veteran Willie Colon in March in a cost-cutting move and let Max Starks walk during free agency. Now the “old guy” on the line is 27-year-old Ramon Foster, who made the team five years ago as an undrafted free agent but has finally worked his way into a starting role.
“It’s one of those things you can’t relax on,” Foster said. “In my position, it’s one of those things where I’ve got to keep the chip on my shoulder.”
Foster will be the only starter not taken in the first two rounds of the draft. The four guys who will surround him have been tasked with keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright. That was an issue at times last season, as Roethlisberger missed three games with a rib injury that sent the Steelers spiraling to a 2-5 finish.
Though the ribs are no longer a problem, Roethlisberger continues to have what Tomlin called “discomfort” in his right knee. He underwent what the team termed a “minor” procedure on the knee on June 5 and Tomlin declined to describe the discomfort as a setback.
Roethlisberger will practice when the team holds its first session of training camp today. He’ll do it behind a center only too happy to trade a baseball cap for a helmet and a more vocal role in the meeting room and on the field.
“I think I’m going to do a good job of it,” Pouncey said. “I think the torch has been passed to me (from the) older guys here helping me along my way and we’ll see how things turn out this year.”
NOTES: Tight ends Heath Miller and David Johnson (knee), linebacker Sean Spence (knee) and nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu will begin camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list. ... Gilbert passed the conditioning test Friday but spent several minutes on the ground after completing the exercise. He was carted off the field but was sitting upright. ... Tomlin has opened his own Twitter account, @CoachTomlin. Tomlin said he is venturing into the social media platform because “I spend a lot of time talking to our guys about what to do, what not to do. It might be time for me to show them.” ... Defensive end Brett Keisel arrived in camp with a mini-Earth mover. The 12-year veteran also donned a hard hat because the Steelers are “under construction.”